March 28, 2012; Source: Houston Chronicle

How much should one make of the decision by Travis County Court Judge John Dietz that the Tea Party group King Street Patriots, known in Texas for a “True the Vote” poll watching effort targeting purported voter fraud, is not a nonprofit organization, but a front for the Republican Party? In a decision on a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Texas Democratic Party, Judge Dietz said that the Patriots were an unregistered political action committee that had illegally assisted the Republican Party. The Democrats charged that the Patriots had made illegal political contributions to the Texas Republican Party and had held candidate forums restricted to Republican candidates. As one might suspect, the King Street Patriots have challenged the decision as politically biased (Judge Dietz is a Democrat) and provisions of the Texas campaign finance statute as unconstitutional.

The Texas Democratic Party suit questioned the nonprofit bona fides of True the Vote as a front for both the Republicans and the Tea Party group. Catherine Engelbrecht founded both True the Vote and the King Street Patriots. The Patriots are a 501(c)(4) while True the Vote is applying for 501(c)(3) status. Engelbrecht’s contention is that they are separate organizations, and that the Patriots, as a (c)(4), can do things such as hold Republican-only candidate forums that True the Vote cannot and, she says, did not do. The Democrats charged that True the Vote made in-kind donations to the Republicans through the poll watching under the guise of looking for voter fraud.

It may seem like a small, local case dependent on the specifics of the King Street Patriots and True the Vote, but national entities have entered the fray. The King Street Patriots countersuit got help from the Liberty Institute, which has been challenging campaign finance restrictions on behalf of numerous organizations, including religious groups. And the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center filed an amicus brief to defend the constitutionality of the Texas campaign finance statute. This case won’t be the last one in this election cycle questioning the (c)(4) or (c)(3) provenance of politically engaged “nonprofits.”—Rick Cohen